Temporary installation in the basement of Porthmeor Studios, Cornwall, England.
Photograph by Stephen Jones.
Into the wild with assemblage artist Mark Dion

Back in 2010, Mark Dion and I were invited to participate in a lengthy biodiversity study in an area of the Peruvian Amazon still unexplored by scientists. We didn’t know that the place we were about to venture into had recently been the site of the largest gold rush since the global recession. It was as if our merry band of biologists had suddenly veered into hell. There is no need to imagine the apocalypse — you can see it for yourself in places like this. We traveled down rivers utterly devoid of life, their waters so choked with sediment they had become more land than liquid. I credit Mark’s joie de vivre, spirit of investigation, and interpretive skills with having shored up our team’s resolve to complete the study in an intellectually sober way. He recorded every detail of our trip in his leather-bound notebook, sketching the frontier outposts we passed along the water's edge and the bounty of resilient tropical birdlife. In fact, he logged over a hundred different species in just a few days’ time.

Pouring over Mark’s journals, I was stunned by the depth of detail he had managed to record. As sad as these environmental catastrophes are, they are the stories of our time, and Mark continues to record and articulate them, in all their beauty and barbarism. Equally at home fishing on the high seas in the New England of his youth as he is curating artifacts from the dusty archives of Europe's most vaunted museums, Dion has all the makings of a twenty-first-century Renaissance man. The following interview was conducted over the span of several days in New York, Berlin, Holland, and the Florida Everglades.

DAVID BROOKS: The scope of your work is remarkably vast, and I’d like to track some of that lineage early on in this interview. Is it fair to say that you’ve made some of your most prodigious marks in the art world by questioning historical and contemporary representations of nature?
MARK DION: Yes, that’s fair. I’ve touched on a great number of subjects, but the one closest to my heart and at the core of my practice is the culture of nature. To trace back an art historical lineage is complicated but not terribly hard. It would go from ecological systems artists, through Earth Art and archeological urbanists, past regional landscape traditions. An important marker would be the Hudson River School painters of the nineteenth century, and the naturalists working in early America (like Audubon, Wilson, Casby). The Surrealists’ explorations of the uncanny aspects of nature (and Henri Rousseau’s). The Barbizon School, the French animal sculptures, European romantic landscape painters, Delacroix, and of course Poussin and Claude Lorrain. I owe a debt to Baroque Dutch and Flemish artists and the Wunderkammer tradition. Renaissance masters Dürer, Brueghel, and Leonardo da Vinci all contribute to my understanding of the social space that is Nature. Indian miniature painting, as well as animal sculpture from diverse cultures around the world, have shaped my vision, ending of course at cave painting. Since my field of concern is the culture of nature, it can easily be perceived as an unbroken chain threading back through numerous societies and cultures to the first appearance of culture itself.

Mark Dion in the rainforest, Guyana.
Photograph by Bob Braine

“Spending time in wild places is a way to remind yourself of what you’re actually fighting for.”

You and I visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum a few years back. During our visit, you remarked that that museum had a profound influence on you. Tell me more about that experience, and the epiphanies that came of it.
Where I grew up, this was the only museum. It’s a remarkable hybrid of natural history, fine art, craft, folk culture, and social history. Since this was my first model for a museum, it always seemed quite natural that these categories could overlap, blend into each other and hybridize. It later helped me when it came to breaking down rigid disciplines in museums. My upbringing was strictly blue collar. While I’m proud of my working-class origins, my family was not invested in art, music, science, or literature. My house contained no books; my parents never read a book. We certainly didn’t visit museums. I remember entering the museum for the first time and being overwhelmed. What was this place? It wasn’t a school, or a place that was trying to sell me something, or a church. Whatever it was, it was for me. The emphasis on materiality, display, and the production of knowledge all turned me on in a way that classroom learning never did. The museum changed my life, and I'm a firm believer in their transformative power.

That makes me think of projects in which you brought the archives and back storerooms to the front of the museum. Would you describe this as a practice of discovery and curiosity?
I am definitely invested in this notion of discovery or rediscovery. Just because something isn’t new to science doesn’t mean it can’t be entirely new to me or another viewer. I live this remarkably charmed life where I experience museums, archives, and marvelous places from behind the scenes. Curators and experts love to take me behind the scenes to encounter their most curious treasures. I get the backstories of the collections, eccentric staff, and scandalous histories. Specimens and artworks I see in storage may not be ordered by the rational systems of the exhibition spaces; there are jarring juxtapositions, comic pairings, surreal dialogues. This is an incredibly rich experience, and if I could, I would take each visitor by the hand and expose the museum this way. However, that is a little impracticable. Nevertheless, that impulse is very much behind exhibitions and publications like The Marvelous Museum, Oceanomania, and The Academy of Things. Given the limits of exhibition conventions, I am doing my best to approximate the experience of wonder I have when I’m being shepherded through the back rooms.

Some of your expeditions are direct reenactments of those of historical naturalist figures. Can you talk more specifically about the characters that you’ve chosen to reenact over the years?
The history of natural history is rich in villains. It is easy to find in it colonial bastards, racists, and individuals with superior attitudes and arrogant worldviews. However, there are also individuals of extraordinary sensitivity who are remarkably progressive for their time. Alexander von Humboldt, Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates, to mention a few, are the kinds of naturalists who are broad-minded, based on experience. Unlike the armchair social Darwinists of the time, Wallace based his rejection of racist theories on his experience traveling within a wide variety of cultures. So I am often drawn to figures like that. Some of these naturalists have left us remarkable documents of their world and times. For example, William Bartram’s travels in the American South are a stunning example of an articulate and thoughtful voice describing a world long gone. The peoples, landscapes, and natural life Bartram so eloquently describes in both his writing and drawing exist for us to compare with today. Dana Sherwood and I traveled along Bartram’s route, reading his journals, searching for fragments, and, like Bartram, collecting. It was a stunning way to understand the changes in the land over two hundred and thirty years.

How do you deal with the less savory parts?
One way to deal with the rather serious social and ecological issues at the heart of any investigation is through humor. My work always playfully evokes aspects of the masquerade of reenactment. I’ve looked with great care at the rich body of illustration produced around Humboldt, or the photos of Levi Strauss, Beebe, and Jane Goodall in the field. This is a sophisticated image world, ripe for subtle parody and deflation. Certainly it is not hard for someone of my anemic physique, short stature, and general nerdy nature to lambast notions of machismo and masculinity.

(Mobile VERSION) 1990
Mark Dion and William Schefferine, tropical vegetation, soil, stones, and enamel wheelbarrow. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

“Just because something isn't new to science doesn’t mean it can't be entirely new to me.”

Of your many travels, which stand out as the most pivotal or revelatory?
My travels with my friends Bob Braine and Alexis Rockman to South and Central America were important for my development as an artist and person. I have also had marvelous expeditions to the Komodo Islands in Indonesia and off the coast of Alaska. For me, it’s vital to check in with the wild world every once in a while. Dealing with conservation and biodiversity issues can be soul-crushing since there is so little good news. Spending time in wild places is a way to remind yourself of what you’re actually fighting for. It’s a chance to rekindle the love that motivates your entire practice.

Do you ever question the efficacy of an art practice in the face of insurmountable ecological and social crises? Is there a benefit to being an artist rather than a scientist or archeologist?
If one emphasizes efficacy as a goal, perhaps they should look to go into another field of practice than art. It does not seem to me to be the most efficient realm for immediate social change. It is, however, a realm of complex and sophisticated discourse, and it can express ideas that are hard to find in more direct communication. Art is excellent for the articulation of ambivalence, contradiction, mourning, irony, humor, anxiety, and uncertainty. These are important aspects of human experience that I think are difficult to articulate in other forms. Art does well with representing complex ideas and emotions without reducing them. Also, in building a movement of social change, like a new progressive culture of nature, all types of participation are needed. Yes, grassroots activism is necessary, but it can’t go far without theory, without intellectual guidance. Technological activism needs social and cultural partners to function. As a much younger artist, I saw art making as part of direct social activism about the issues I was moved by, like species’ extinction, tropical forest destruction, and problems of biotechnology. My work had informative content, based on my notion that the biodiversity crisis was an information crisis. Only later did it become clear that it is a crisis of will. So now my work takes on a more melancholy tone. It feels like a way to mourn.

DEN 2012 Permanent installation for the Norway Tourist Routes Program, Norway.
Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.